Digital has been extending its cords into daily life since computers became popularized in the late 20th century and the first smartphones fell into shoppers' hands. The shift to buying products online, in addition to doing everything else digitally, was only accelerated by the pandemic as stores became unviable options for many.
The older Gen Z gets, the more the buying population is made up of young shoppers that remember little besides a fluid digital landscape. And yet, paper, one of the earliest human inventions, is still a critical part of society.
In 2018 alone, global consumption of paper and paperboard topped 421 million metric tons, according to Statista, with the U.S. consuming 70.6 million metric tons by itself. It functions as both the ubiquitous and the personal: as printer paper for offices and as the pages of journals and planners.
And to Moleskine, a brand well known for its simply designed notebooks, paper has come to represent something more.
"Paper is not going away, it's not going anywhere," CEO Daniela Riccardi said, noting that its notebooks operate as companions to digital and hold a special value to creativity. "Handwriting, hand sketching, drafting ideas, doodling is so important to the best expression of the human genius and the human creativity that nobody's really abandoning it. I think we progressively see that it is used in tandem with digital."
In fact, for a number of its customers, notebooks have become something of a luxury item, and Moleskine has seen that interest reflected in the performance of its premium segment. As it is, though, Riccardi speculates that most of the brand's customers are millennials, so the challenge now is to convince the most digital-savvy generation to see the same value in physical paper that the older generation does.
Riccardi has formed a Gen Z panel within Moleskine's headquarters, made up of 10 to 15 of the brand's youngest employees, to do just that. They're helping the leadership at the company better understand the young generation and how to communicate with them.
"I think our challenge is to … make sure that they value and they relearn or re-experience the importance of keeping paper and sketching or writing," Riccardi said. "We know they do it a lot for journaling and we are now in the process of really putting together a strategy to make sure that the younger generations don't abandon handwriting and sketching because that would mean abandoning a significant portion of their creativity and idea generation potential."
Keeping a millenniums-old product fresh
Paper may have an enduring presence in today's world, but sellers of paper products have had a rough past couple of years. According to the NPD Group, year-over-year revenue from loose filler paper and notebooks fell 3% in 2019 and 10% in 2020. Likewise, specialty paper saw declines of 7% and 15% over those two years, and note pads fell by 8% and 13%, respectively.
In 2020, two specialty paper retailers filed for bankruptcy: The Paper Store and the parent company of Papyrus. Then in early 2021, after an ill-timed acquisition of 30 of Papyrus' old locations just before the pandemic hit, Paper Source filed for bankruptcy.
The days ahead may be brighter, though. The categories tracked by NPD that showed declines in 2019 and 2020 saw growth in 2021: Revenue of loose filler paper and notebooks rose 16%, while specialty paper increased 12% and note pads grew 8%.
To spark growth at Moleskine, Riccardi — who took the CEO spot in April 2020 — is branching out from the company's simple designs and offering products with more "color, with graphics, with fashion patterns." Moleskine has partnered with Italian fashion house Missoni for a collection of notebooks, debuted a velvet collection in partnership with velvet producer Pontoglio, and made its first partnership with a pen maker through a deal with German fountain pen company Kaweco.
"The importance is that there is a connection with the brand and with the DNA of the brand and with our mission of unleashing the human genius through pen to paper," Riccardi said of who Moleskine chooses to partner with. "Most of our consumers don't have just one notebook, or just one planner, they would have several. Maybe one for the office, one for their home and one for their bag. And I think they like to play with colors, with patterns and they like a lot our limited editions. They choose maybe the one that is most meaningful to them and to their personality."
In addition to offering customers more colorful options to choose from, the collaborations also offer Moleskine the chance to sell products at a higher price point. Moleskine's notebooks with Missoni sell for $36 a piece, the velvet collection for $70 each and its products with Kaweco include a $55 fountain pen and $115 pen sets. (A standard notebook at Moleskine sells for $16.95).
Collaborations span from luxury firms to a current collection with Chinese calligrapher and graphic designer Lok Ng for the Lunar New Year. Riccardi has also introduced a more luxurious gifting process for Moleskine products to capture more spend from consumers who were already coming to Moleskine to shop for others. A velvet gift box with two notebooks goes for $90 currently.
In keeping Moleskine relevant, there are also opportunities to extend the brand beyond just notebooks. For example, the brand already sells a selection of bags and reading glasses, in addition to its notebooks and writing utensils.
"I continue looking for possible strategic adjacencies: The important thing is that they are strategic," Riccardi said. "So I would not just do it because you can make money there. There needs to be meaning and a reason for that strategic adjacency and for the partner that we choose."
The same approach is being applied to the brand's wholesale partners. Going forward, Riccardi plans to be more selective about where Moleskine sells outside of its direct channels. Moleskine has over 50 permanent stores in addition to its own site, but also sells at wholesalers like Barnes & Noble.
"Wherever we have a point of sale, we need to have a true and immersive Moleskine experience, it cannot just be a place to shop for our products," Riccardi said. "The meaning and the depth of Moleskine goes well beyond just the notebook on the shelf. More and more, we will define our strategic partners as those that are really involved in and interested in communicating and sharing the experience of the brand with our clients and consumers."
Making room for 'scribble scrabble calligraphy' in a digital world
Moleskine knows print will always have to contend with digital. But it's finding ways to embrace the need for digital note-keeping rather than fight it. The notebook brand's major bet on digital is its Moleskine Smart line of products, which allow for users to take notes in a physical notebook and have them appear in the Moleskine app. The system allows users to compose handwritten emails and transfer written notes to a digital font, among other things.
"I think it's very different when I handwrite them, even with my scribble scrabble calligraphy," Riccardi said of notes she sends to her team using the system. "I feel more myself in the tone of what I write and in the way that I write and then I push and it goes via computer so it gets to their laptop or their mobile phone, but with my calligraphy rather than just with Word where everybody writes the same way. I write my own way, as bad as it is, and I find that ability of using the digital device for what it is good at but using the paper for what it is unique at."
To Riccardi, Moleskine Smart is "the future" and the brand is working to develop the technology further to hopefully create a seamless connection between physical note taking and digital tools that augment it. For example, allowing students to take notes during a class while also recording the audio and video of the course. That way students can write down the notes that matter to them in the moment and reference back to what a professor showed on the blackboard later.
Riccardi describes it as a physical Moleskine notebook attached to a "digital layer" that stores other information on it.
"I envision a day where there will be a Moleskine notebook that is as good or maybe even better than the one you were using before that looks identical, but in fact, we have embedded into it so many more functionalities and capabilities that capture … all the human senses," Riccardi said. "So what is in the mind, but also what is in the eyes — and you see what is in your surroundings in terms of music and sounds and voices, and why not even maybe fragrances?"
The approach also mirrors the way Gen Z lives their lives, moving from digital to physical in a fluent manner. Moleskine is still a notebook company with a deep respect for the written word — and it doesn't want consumers to lose that desire for physical expression — but its aim now is to help consumers balance the two.
Or, in Riccardi's words, to create "immense and infinite possibilities of expanding the human genius and the creativity. Always starting from pen to paper."